Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The designer we all see, but never hear about

There’s probably millions of people familiar with Es Devlin’s work without even knowing it.

Beyoncé stepped out of an opening of a cube on her Formation tour. Louis Vuitton Models walked down a twisting pathway at the Contemporary Art Museum in Brazil. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers his Hamlet soliloquy against the backdrop of a traditional Edwardian mansion.

That cube, those projections, and twisting pathway all come from the mind of stage designer, Es Devlin. She is known for her graphic sets for concerts, operas, plays, runway shows using light, film, sculpture, and even rain. She’s won Olivier Awards and has even been appointed Order of the British Empire in 2015.

Devlin’s parents have creative mindsets as well. Her father is a master crocheter and crafter, even making the dining table  out of scaffolding planks. in Devlin’s childhood home. “90% of the things in our house is from junk shops or we just painted them or made them,” her mother says. “I think Es has done the same thing.”

They didn’t see her becoming a stage designer after taking violin lessons at the Royal Academy, but she fell into the art of stage design after taking a course in theatre design and solidified her future in it when she won the 1995 Linbury prize for stage design-- which got her an official job as a set designer.

“Things are made to fill voids,” she says. “The impetus to fill that void to me is sort of fundamental.” What interests Devlin the most is the psychology of a space, always questioning “why? Why that block of light in the middle of the arena for U2’s Tour? Each time a singer sings this lyric, why should this set support or counterpoint what they sing? It seems Devlin’s motivation for creating her sets is highly intrinsic, presenting as many solutions to create space for art to take place.

Devlin definitely has her own graphic style in using mirrors and projections-- and there were some people who did not like it. However, she has “found willing collaborators who I’ve been able to align my paths of inquiry with”. These collaborators range from the artistic directors of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to Beyonce herself.

As for her creative process, it’s a mix of both logistical planning, client pleasing, and introspection. Devlin uses 5 ingredients in creating a set for a performance: space, light, darkness, scale, and time.Each project begins with  “a blank piece of paper, blank table, there’s usually one other person there,… could be a director, or a playwright, or the artist,” says Devlin. She’ll usually start drawing as they’re talking. What follows is a series of meetings, and in between her team will create models or she will draw the models to give her client(s) as many options as possible.

With Beyonce’s Formation Tour set, Devlin recalls that Beyonce was inspired by a TV preacher whom she spoke to as a child. “It was a combination in a child’s mind what TV does and what the language and tone of prayer feels like,” Devlin recalls. The large cuboid used in the tour became another way for Beyonce to broadcast her and what she is saying.

This won’t be the last time you’ll hear (or more likely, see) of Devlin’s projects-- she has projects lined up all the way until 2020. So keep your eyes open during your next concert tour-- she might have just designed the atmosphere you’re in.

Collins, M. A., & Amabile, T. M. (1999). Motivation and creativity. In Robert J. Sternberg (Ed.) Handbook of Creativity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

“Abstract: The Art of Design, Stage Design: Es Devlin”. Dir. Elizabeth Chai Vsarahelyi, Morgan Neville. Radical Media, 2017. Netflix. Web. 25 March 2017.


  1. This is a great post that highlights lesser-known creatives to whom many of us owe our gratitude for their work. Having read the article on collaboration by Uzzi and Spiroajs, I wonder how collaboration with other artists may have helped and hindered Devlin's work. We tend to assume that collaboration fuels the fire of creativity. While this is certainly true, Uzzi and Spiroajs have shown that there is a parabolic correlation between collaboration and creativity. It would be interesting to know to what extent working with other artists may have held Devlin back from manifesting her true creative potential, if at all.

  2. I liked your article and how you brought notice to the "little guys". I personally was in Stage crew during high school so we made the sets on the plays. Because of my background I am incredibly interested in stage designs, but although they are celebrated they are never featured. For big award shows like the Tonys or the Oscars many awards having to do with set and light design are celebrated, but they are usually fit into the commercial breaks with quick highlight reels at the end. I think it's really cool how much creativity goes into the background. At a concert people go to see the artist, but they get an entire experience with the lights and displays, and sometimes the background is more memorable. Devin's work is extremely collaborative where her inspiration is built around what the clients want, I'd almost think her motivation is a little more extrinsic though than intrinsic. While she is questioning motives and space and searches for possibilities the possibilities that are selected are usually approved or for a different person.


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